Ask MidCurrent: Why Fly Contrast and Color Matter

May 20, 2024 By: MidCurrent Staff

Image from video by Matt O’Neal @savageriverflies

Question: I read recently that fly color doesn’t make much difference to trout, but fly shape and size do. My question then is do contrasting materials make a difference? Recently I had a very good day of fishing with a Black Pennell wet fly. The tail is golden pheasant thus the contrast.

– Bob from Rhode Island


We fly anglers have been taught that when it comes to catching trout on a fly, size and shape reign supreme. After all, these fish have incredible eyesight and inspect every potential meal like a forensic investigator. But your recent success with the Black Pennell wet fly has you rethinking this long-held belief. That flashy golden pheasant tail contrasted against the dark body seemed to drive trout into a frenzy. You can’t help but wonder: does contrast play a bigger role than we give it credit for?

Science Says Contrast Matters

Well, you’re not just spitballing here—actual research backs up the potent fish-catching powers of contrast. In a study published in a legit science journal, researchers discovered trout were significantly more likely to smash flies featuring high color contrast. Patterns with pops of black alongside yellow or orange really got their motors running. Seems those can’t-miss combos are simply too tempting to resist.

Other studies came to similar conclusions. One from Paul Suter and Hendrik Moller states that trout “responded best to high contrast patterns with black and yellow/orange components.” In their expert opinion, these specific contrasting shades are super effective at triggering visceral strikes. The proof is piling up that we shouldn’t overlook contrast.

Nature’s Shimmering Illusion

Think about how dynamic and vibrant a river’s currents can be, with light rays refracting in a million different directions. This shimmering lightshow casts an ever-changing blend of light and shadow. A well-designed contrast fly can mimic this mesmerizing illusion to perfection.

Trout have evolved to recognize these depth cues and hints of life as signs of a potential meal. Your killer Black Pennell likely replicated this exact effect. That sleek obsidian body juxtaposed against the fiery golden tail? It probably looked like a snack getting backlit by rays piercing the surface film. No wonder those trout couldn’t resist slamming it!

Contrast = Complexity = Realism

But contrast isn’t just about colors—textural contrast is key too. As fly designers Dave Swisher and Carl Richards explain, blending glossy and matte materials creates a more intricate, realistic bug imitation that triggers trout instincts . A smooth hackle paired with nubby dubbing looks way more real than uniform materials.

The more contrasting textures you can incorporate into a pattern, the more dimensions and complexity it gains. And the more true-to-life it appears to those trout. Don’t sleep on the power of varied materials.

Finding the Goldilocks Contrast

Now, that’s not to say you can just randomly mash together every color and texture in the box and expect to catch fish. There’s an art to striking the right balance of contrast—not too much, not too little. Go overboard with clashing colors or textures and your fly will look like a garish novelty item rather than food. But insufficient contrast and it may fail to grab any attention.

You need just enough contrast to mimic the naturally dazzling underwater environment without entering Frankenpattern territory. It takes studying the trout’s world closely, including behavior and surroundings, to unlock this sweet spot. But nail that Goldilocks ratio of contrasting elements? You’ll be unstoppable.

Open Your Eyes to Contrast

So next tying session, keep contrast at the forefront. Don’t reflexively shy away from brash colors or wildly different materials side-by-side. Trust that these visually popping combinations tap into the trout’s evolutionary instincts on a primitive level.

And while fishing, make a point of analyzing how light and shadow interact across your contrast flies. Those bold elements may be the key to snapping fish out of their daze and triggering ferocious strikes. Totally worth exploring.

At the end of the day, flycraft is a constant journey of refinement. Every river session deepens our grasp of trout behavior and what gets them to eat or reject. By thoughtfully incorporating contrast into your patterns, you’ll give those fish something irresistible to their ancient instincts. An overlooked advantage like this can make the difference between good days and downright legendary ones on the water.